18 May 2008
MAS Guidelines on Fair Dealing
Submission by Tan Kin Lian
1. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is seeking views on proposed Guidelines on Fair Dealing – Board and Senior Management Responsibility for Delivering Fair Dealing Outcomes to Consumers (Guidelines).
2. The Guidelines emphasise the responsibility of the Board and Senior Management of financial institutions (FIs) to deliver fair dealing outcomes when FIs provide financial advisory (FA) services to retail consumers. The fair dealing outcomes that FIs should strive to achieve are:
(a) Consumers have confidence that financial institutions put consumers’ interests first in the conduct of their business;
(b) Financial institutions offer products and services that are suitable for the consumer segments they target;
(c) Financial institutions appoint competent representatives who provide consumers with advice that meet their financial objectives and suit their personal circumstances;
(d) Consumers receive clear, relevant and timely information to make informed financial decisions; and
(e) Financial institutions handle consumer complaints promptly and in a consistent manner.
3. I agree with the goal to ensure that the consumers are given fair dealing outcomes. I believe that the board and senior management should be made responsible to achieve these outcomes. However, in my view, this requirement is not sufficient.
4. It is difficult for the board and senior management, who are responsible to achieve the “best shareholder value” for the financial institution, to be able to “put consumers’ interest first in the conduct of their business”. We must recognise and address this serious conflict of interest, in order to achieve the desired goal.
5. “Put consumers’ interest first” must be defined clearly. In my view, the financial products must be designed to give good value to the customers and a fair profit margin to the financial institution. If the product contains excessive expense charges and profit margins and are not fairly and clearly disclosed to the public, it will not pass the test of “good value”.
A good test is, “will a knowledgeable person, with no vested interest, buy the product for his own use or recommend it to a friend?”
6. As it is almost impossible for the board and senior management to exercise this responsibility adequately, we need a more effective channel to achieve the results.
In many countries, this responsibility falls on one or both of the following:
(b) Consumer advocates
7. Some financial products introduced in Singapore in recent years are complicated. It is not realistic to expect the consumer to be sufficiently well informed about the product to make the right decision, especially if they are pitted against the financial experts working for financial institutions, who have the freedom to design products aimed at maximising profits for the financial institutions.
8. There is a similar situation regarding the approval of drugs for consumption by the public. The regulator, such as the Food and Drug Administration of the USA and the Health Science Authority of Singapore, takes the responsibility to check that new drugs are suitable for consumption by the public. A drug cannot be sold without the approval of the regulator. The regulator does not expert the consumer to be sufficiently educated to make the judgement on their own.
9. It is equally important to ensure the financial health of Singaporeans. They work hard to earn an income and have to save part of the income for their future needs. If they are offered products that do not offer fair value, they are being unfairly exploited by the financial institutions.
10. Over the past ten years, Singaporeans have invested billions of dollars in complicated financial products, including structured financial products and more traditional financial products that give poor value. Most of these products have the following features:
(a) Excessive expense charges
(b) High profit margins
(c) Complex – difficult for consumers to understand
These excessive charges and high profit margins reduce the return to the consumer. Many of them get a poor return relative to the risk that they have to bear. They would have obtained a better return by investing in government bonds, for people who look for risk free returns, or leaving their savings in the Central Provident Fund.
For investors willing to take risk, they would have obtained a higher return by investing in fairly priced unit trusts.
11. Life insurance products, such as whole life, endowment and regular premium investment linked policies have high sales charges that take away more than 150% of the annual premium. These high charges reduce the return to the consumer considerably, and are not justified by the value of the product given to the consumer. The competition appears to be on the recruitment of the right type of agents who are able to “convince” customers to buy these products. There is no attempt to offer more appropriate, lower cost products to the consumers.
12. If MAS were to make a study of the innovative financial products that were sold to consumers in recent years and compare the actual return earned by the consumers against the return on “fair products” offering similar risks, the study will probably show that the investing public had been deprived of at least several hundred of millions of dollars of fair return from their investments.
13. I recommend the following approach:
(a) All complex financial products should be reviewed by two independent experts appointed by the regulator. These experts can ask relevant questions from the product issuer and study the answers to form an opinion on whether the product provides “fair dealing outcome” to the consumer. The experts can study if the charges, profit margin and penalty (to get out of a long term contract) are fair to the consumer. The experts can submit their recommendations to the regulator.
(b) Based on the recommendations of the independent experts, the regulator can disallow the product from being marketed, or be marketed with the views of the independent experts, posted in an easily accessible website.
(c) The regulator can specify the classes of simple and transparent products, such as bank accounts and products traded on the stock exchange, that are excluded from this requirement. These products may require certain guidelines to be observed, such as disclosing the effective rate of interest in a suitably prominent manner.
I support the move by MAS to make the board and senior management of financial institutions responsible to deliver fair outcomes to consumers. I recommend that this should be strengthened by an additional measure to get independent experts to review the financial products that are offered to the public.
Tan Kin Lian
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